After finishing college in 2017, Conor Stevens from Littlehampton decided to do a Chartered Management Degree Apprenticeship with the University of Chichester and was employed by Inpress in Littlehampton – a company which manufactures polymer products for the medical, health and industrial markets. After completing the four-year course, Conor became general manager at the company, overseeing a team of more than 60 people.

Here he explains why he chose to take the degree apprenticeship route, how it helped him get ahead and how the scheme can benefit employers.

Why did you decide to do a degree apprenticeship over a traditional degree course?

Throughout school and college I was pushed towards the traditional degree route, but personally I wanted to get on faster and start a career. I didn’t like the thought of having three more years of education at that point – I wanted to start earning money and get some real-life experience.

I decided to do a degree apprenticeship in Chartered Business Management through the University of Chichester as I’ve always been intrigued by business and how economies work. When an opportunity at Inpress came up, it was local to me, at a company I knew and it sat well with my interests.

What are the advantages for the student/apprentice in taking a degree apprenticeship?

I’d say there are three big advantages – firstly, the degree is funded by the employer so there’s no debt at the end of it. I think most university students come out of their degree with between £60k to £100k worth of debt on average.

Secondly, while you’re doing a degree apprenticeship you are paid a salary, so instead of losing money, you’re gaining money. I was fortunate enough that while I was studying my degree I was able to buy a house to get on the property market at the same time.

There are definitely degree apprenticeships out there which aren’t just offering what you would call an ‘apprentice wage’ – if you find the right ones, it’s a really good scheme.

Thirdly, at the end of the four-year process, not only did I have a degree, which I got First Class Honours in – I’d also worked in a company for four years and so I had four years’ experience of working in four different departments and was then able to apply for the role of general manager, which I took on at the age of 22.

Conor Stevens, general manager at Inpress in Littlehampton

How does a degree apprenticeship work?

There’s a base model for it and it’s the same every year. You do four days at your company per week and then one day at the university with two or three lectures per day, and another six hours of study in your own time.

That goes on for the four-year period and it works well – the university and the company are very in-sync. When you’re writing your assignments or doing a dissertation, it’s on the business you’re working in, so it’s helping you analyse the company and you can start applying your new skills. Straight away your degree helps the business and the business helps the degree.

What are the advantages for employers?

We know the labour market is currently very tight – businesses are struggling to hire good people across the country. This scheme is a good way to get young, keen, intelligent people into your company at a young age who are eager to learn. If you have to ask them to do more work, it’s likely they’ll be happy to, as they want to learn.

Over that four-year period, you can mould these young people and get them used to your culture and how you operate. When you are potentially offering them a job at the end, it’s not the same as just hiring someone off the street – they already know your organisation and how you want it to be.

It’s also worth mentioning that although the employer funds the degree apprenticeship, it is mostly government-backed. The employer only pays a small percentage of the fees, so it’s not as if there’s a big cost that comes with it either.

Tell us about your degree apprenticeship and what it involved. How did it aid your development?

On the university side, there are four years of modules and you learn the basics early on, such as an introduction to management, working with others, basic HR, accounting and marketing. As you get into years two and three there are more advanced modules on different aspects of business.

So, you’re getting trained in different fields and then towards the end you write your dissertation and put it all together with your analysis of the company and suggestions for improvements using skills you’ve gained in accounting, marketing, project management, etc.

I found that I was applying all these different skills to the company throughout – on every module there’s an assignment which is essentially an improvement project for the organisation, and you receive resources and theories from the university to help you do it in the best way. Most of the assignments you do support change in the workplace and they get a benefit from it.

Tell us about your journey to become the general manager at Inpress.

I started off just doing basic business admin such as scanning files. Within the first couple of weeks, the accounts assistant left the company. As my A-levels were in Maths and Further Maths they decided to give me a go in the accounts department. I did that for a year where I learned how to be an accounts assistant and covered for the account manager.

A spot then came up to be the purchasing manager. From what I’d learned at university, combined with knowing how the accounts side worked, they thought I was a good natural fit. I did that for a year, managing a budget of about £1,000,000 – spending, keeping the company going, making sure production never stopped and that we were getting everything for the best price on time.

Then the pandemic hit. We bought a sharps bin product range which were used very heavily during the vaccine roll-out and they needed a production manager for that site. I went from being the purchasing manager to production manager for this new range, which went very well.

Once I graduated a position opened for someone to run the business day-to-day, managing the management team. That’s where I am now as the general manager – I have five managers who report to me and 60 employees.

It’s good fun and I love it. No two days are the same. I’m 24 now and aware I’ve done all this quite young, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the degree backing and the employer backing. When it’s all combined, you develop a lot faster – and more than you would if you just joined the company through a normal route. No-one really joins a company and then gets moved around different departments.

We currently have seven other past or present degree apprentices in the business – we are a big believer in them and it’s working for us.

What advice would you give to young people considering their options after college?

I visit local schools and find so many students aren’t even aware of degree apprenticeships – they understand you can go into the workplace after college, or you can go to university, but don’t really know that you can do both.

My advice would be to make sure you’re aware of all your options. Everyone is different – I knew I didn’t want to go to university but was also aware I needed a qualification. I found out about degree apprenticeships online through the government’s apprenticeship scheme website. Then Henry Powell, commercial director of Inpress, came into my school to talk about the company. I spoke to him afterwards and was a bit cheeky in telling him about the amazing grades I was going to get.

I should add that the degree apprenticeship is hard work. You are getting a degree while you’re working a job and that isn’t easy, but the scheme is designed with support to make it possible. As long as you put the effort in, it’s doable and you will reap the benefits fast and be ahead of your peers between 5 and 10 years.

Did your degree apprenticeship involve learning digital skills?

On the university side you learn some good basics on how to use Microsoft packages successfully and efficiently, including Outlook and Excel. Then further down the course you do some digital campaign planning based on your company’s needs, either using social media or as a business-to-business email campaign to try to increase sales.

What advice would you give to anyone considering embarking on a career in digital/anyone considering a career change?

There’s always going to be work in digital – no matter what the company is – small or big, advanced or just starting off, B2C or B2B – they’re going to need to use digital skills in one way or another.

What are the benefits of working in or basing your business in West Sussex?

I think the real selling-point of West Sussex is that you can get that balance of being not too far from London, if you have a need to communicate or visit companies there, but also you get that more rural lifestyle, where you’re very close to the beach and have the lovely South Downs in between – so you feel you can relax a lot more.

Business is done a bit differently down here too I’d say – it’s a lot more about getting to know people, going to meet them for a coffee and having meetings as opposed to strict timeframes and everything being a bit more cut-throat. It’s a more enjoyable place to work I believe.

Read more on apprenticeships here: Take on apprentices to bolster local economy, SMEs told